When thinking of grief, it’s common to picture people crying and feeling sadness or despair. But emotions aren’t the full extent of how grief manifests. For many, there are physical, bodily symptoms as well.
“The body and mind work together, so it is not unusual for grief to be experienced physically,” said Nicole Raines, a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Los Angeles. “Stress hormones may be released during the grief process, and these have an impact on our body.”
People who suffer a misfortune — whether it’s the death of a loved one or some other loss — will feel grief in different ways, so its physical expressions can vary from person to person as well.
“Grieving impacts the entire mind-body system for most people,” said Becky Stuempfig, a Southern California-based therapist who specializes in grief. “Some people experience a wide array of physical symptoms … while others only experience one or two.”
They may have digestive system issues, muscle tension or both at once. And different individuals can have those muscle aches and pains in a range of places throughout the body.
Speaking to HuffPost, experts on grief detailed the variety of physical symptoms people may feel and offered advice for coping with this complex form of pain.
Headaches and mental fog are common.
“Everyone feels grief differently,” said Dan Reidenberg, the executive director of Minnesota-based nonprofit Suicide Awareness Voices of Education. “For some, grief can be headaches or even experiencing a migraine.”
In addition to physical pain, your head may feel a little foggy as well. As a result, everyday tasks like showering, eating, cleaning and doing your job can seem impossible.
“Many people report difficulty with memory and concentration, sometimes referred to as ‘grief brain,’” Stuempfig said. “Grief brain occurs because the brain is on overload, focused on processing sadness, loss, loneliness and many other feelings. People often feel that they are in a mental fog and may forget to do things, and even small tasks may suddenly feel daunting.”
You may experience sensory changes.
Beyond the pain and fogginess in your head, you might also experience new sensory issues, like feeling extra disturbed by loud noises. Or you may feel like some of your senses are not heightened but have rather become numb.
“Some people experience a sensitivity to light and sound, and report that food has no taste,” said Zainab Delawalla, a clinical psychologist in Atlanta.
Digestive issues can crop up, too.
“For others, they physically feel grief by being nauseated and [dealing] with digestive issues,” Reidenberg noted.
You may feel queasy at times, or perhaps there’s a hollowness in your stomach that makes you not want to eat. Appetite disturbance is common.
Changes to your eating habits, or just additional stress, can mess with your digestive system as well. These issues may have begun even before the actual loss.
“It is very common for people to have unhealthy eating habits while taking care of their loved ones,” Stuempfig said. “They may be eating meals on the go, have less time to prepare healthy meals, or experience decreased appetite due to stress and sadness.”
There are often body aches.
“Grief can manifest in the form of aches and pains throughout the body,” Raines said. “There is no one place that grief can be physically felt. It can be felt in many different places, including the head, stomach, back and joints. The experiences are different for different people. Some people may not experience physical pain.”
Muscle aches and pains associated with grief are common but temporary, and they tend to feel like a heaviness or dull hurt. You may experience new aches or find that specific pains you felt before the loss now hurt even more.
“I have worked with patients who describe grief as feeling like an ache in the heart or chest,” said Katie Waugh, a psychotherapist in the behavioral health department at Ohio State Outpatient Care Dublin.
“It can feel like … a physical burden on your shoulders or chest. The body and mind, while some might consider [them] two separate systems in the body, are actually very dependent on one another, and impact each other greatly.”
You may feel generally run-down.
“Some people can feel physically drained, just completely exhausted, and they feel like it is hard to get up and move around,” Reidenberg said.
As with digestive issues, this sort of bodily exhaustion may have begun in the time leading up to a loss.
“When a loved one eventually dies, the physical impacts of the time leading up to their death tend to catch up with the caretaker, leaving them feeling depleted both emotionally and physically,” Stuempfig said. “It takes time for the body to return to a healthy way of functioning in the world.”
That run-down feeling in periods of grief can be associated with decreased immunity as well.
“Grief can lower your immune response system, making you more vulnerable to illnesses,” Reidenberg said.
Sleep tends to be affected.
“Grief, which is such an intense and unique emotional experience, can cause physical pain similar to those of other ailments,” Waugh said. “The stress that is frequently a byproduct of loss can contribute to physical symptoms such as fatigue.”
So you may feel extra tired all the time, which can be particularly difficult as grieving people also often report trouble sleeping.
“It is very common to experience extreme fatigue during the grief process and require a great deal more rest then you are accustomed to needing,” Stuempfig said.
“Many people spend a great deal of time taking care of loved ones before they pass away and oftentimes neglect their own well-being,” she added. “They might be losing sleep due to taking care of their loved one in the middle of the night, or simply due to feeling overwhelmed by the anticipation of their loved one’s death.”
Heart issues may arise.
“Research data suggests that bereavement is associated with a host of physiological changes, including neuroendocrine activation like increased cortisol response, increased inflammation, as well as changes in blood pressure and heart rate,” Delawalla said. “In some rare cases, it can actually lead to a weakening of the left ventricle of the heart muscle, causing symptoms that feel very much like having a heart attack.”
This phenomenon of a heart attack-like feeling, first described in Japanese medical literature of the ’90s, is formally called takotsubo cardiomyopathy but colloquially known as “broken-heart syndrome.”
And your mental health might be impacted.
Many symptoms of grief are also symptoms of mental health disorders like anxiety and depression. Changes in sleep, appetite or concentration, as well as issues like panic attacks and chest pain, can occur in cases of clinical depression and anxiety disorders.
“While depression or anxiety are not a direct symptom of the grieving process, if grief is left unattended to, or is particularly difficult, depression and anxiety disorders can develop over time,” Waugh said.
Grief can be compounded by other feelings and experiences.
“Grief can physically manifest in a lot of ways, depending on the person’s relationship with loss, their environment, others and themselves,” said Breeshia Wade, the Los Angeles-based author of “Grieving While Black.”
“Grief isn’t a singular, confined event. In fact, we are moving through grief every moment of every day via our fear of impermanence or fear of future loss. We’re constantly navigating the underlying fear of losing a loved one, a job, a sense of safety, comfort, identity, health, control, agency, etc.”
She pointed to the experiences of marginalized people like Black Americans, who tend to carry grief and fear of loss due to past incidents that have robbed them of agency, opportunity, joy and more. People from communities affected by violence, death and other losses can feel stress and grief as physical tension, powerful emotions and a strong fight-or-flight response.
Wade recalled a strong emotional response she felt on the day of a close friend’s funeral, when a grocery counter worker rudely rejected her request for a sandwich, only to then prepare food for white customers.
“At that moment, my body was carrying the traditional grief associated with losing a loved one,” she said. “That grief was compounded by mistreatment based on my race, which felt like an anvil pulling my heart down to my stomach. All of that grief was amplified by countless memories of stripped dignity, leading to my neck and shoulders feeling tight, my eyes burning.”
Here’s how to cope with physical feelings of grief.
“Grieving is hard,” Reidenberg said. “Many of us want to avoid it and just hope it will go away quickly or easily. My best advice to anyone struggling with grief and loss is to allow it to be part of your life while you are in it. Don’t push it away. Don’t try and deny that it is real. Don’t minimize how much it hurts, and definitely don’t set any time frames on how long you might feel one way or another.”
Allow yourself to feel the physical and emotional pain, and have judgment-free conversations about it with other people ― friends, family, support groups and mental health professionals. Remember that grief is part of life, and that difficult emotions and even physical pains are normal. Take care of yourself, drink water, try meditating or deep breathing, snuggle with pets, and engage in stress-relieving hobbies.
“I recommend trying to stick to a regular routine as much as possible,” Stuempfig said. “Our minds and bodies thrive on predictability, and having a routine can help keep people on track with healthy eating and sleep patterns. Social contact and physical movement can also help reduce the physical symptoms of grief by creating stress release and producing endorphins, which promotes feelings of well-being.”
If everyday tasks feel too daunting, try to delegate or break them up into smaller chunks. Designate times to talk about your grief and express your emotions; that way, you can release some of your pain and take small “breaks” from feeling deep loss.
“I would advise anybody dealing with grief to seek grief counseling,” said Saniyyah Mayo, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles. “People can physically experience grief differently. Grief often begins to manifest physically because we fail to open up and release those stressors by verbally speaking about them. Discussing grief can help the body regulate and properly release some of those inward emotions.”
Mayo noted that people tend to attribute the physical symptoms of grief to other health issues and ignore the psychological aspect. You should still rule out any medical conditions before assuming changes in your body are due to mourning, but you should also be open to working through your grief and understanding how it may affect you in different ways.
“Though the physical bodily response and emotions involved may feel very permanent in the moment, they likely won’t be pervasive and can be managed well through some simple measures,” said Waugh, adding, “It’s important not to compare your journey to anyone else’s, and avoid thinking about how you ‘should’ be experiencing grief.”
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